Notes from India #3: An Attempt at Invoking Curiosity through Critical Literacy

Children gearing up for class
Non-hierarchical arrangement

This article is part of a series of articles written by Mathujitha Sankaran about her experiences during the year abroad in India. Click here for part one and part two.

My initial contact with the Eureka Koovathur Model School involved glimpses of the Social Science classroom. The subject teacher (Ms. Umarani) was teaching a chapter on the wildlife species that are found in the Southern states of India. The 2nd standard students were springing with eagerness to share their observations about the surrounding flora and fauna. I gradually felt rejuvenated as I listened to Ms. Umarani and her students narrate their encounters and impressions of the village scenery––the paddy fields, the principled behaviour of crows as they always share their food. She was speaking of the things that seemed most familiar to her students while also enabling a reflective atmosphere that encouraged us to be more than rural dwellers––that is––to take on an observer position.

It is hard to experientially immerse oneself in everyday banality, however, Ms. Umarani was determined to extract from her students the feeling of fathoming––to be able to engage in contemplation with the most familiar and to eventually turn into an object of thought. It was this atmosphere that I have been meaning to re-create with the students, whilst reading and discussing various philosophical and, specifically, societal issues with them.

Before I provide a description of my time with the students, I would like to briefly insert excerpts of a preface of the Social Science textbook at this juncture, which in translation has been reduced to hackneyed wordings. This preface captured the essence of my intentions of my time at the model school, which was to introduce a critical literacy programme that encourages a reflective aspect to reading. The fact that the preface was published by the Tamil Nadu state government provides sanguine prospects about the immense potentiality of reflective education in this region.

 “Children are always eager to be acquainted with the surrounding elements of nature, such as  trees, plants and animals. This textbook serves as an aide to invoke the child’s curiosity and his or her eventual foray into nature. Most importantly this book seeks to immerse the child in the world of experience.

 Every child undergoes a different experience. A class should provide them with the opportunity to converse, state their perspectives so as to enhance the process of interaction. Their desire to ask questions should be stirred and curiosity should be awakened.

 These lessons are not only relevant within the classroom but are more meaningful when stretched beyond the borders of the classroom, leading them to moments of gratifying happiness.”

The invoking of curiosity, the need for openness, and the beckoning of involving the surrounding phenomena in a child’s pedagogy reveals the juxtapositioning of simplicity and opulence of childhood. Armed with the intentions of bringing about this atmosphere at the Koovathur school, I was hoping for a perfected childhood experience for the students.

I sometimes intuit my intentions are inappropriate as I admittedly might have made naive assumptions about the blissful rural life and its utopian potential. Moreover the concept of ‘innocence’ has charmed me for eons which translates in my eagerness of wanting to understand and re-capture ‘innocence’. I must confess I am parched and overly nostalgic for a time in which experiences seemed more immediate and when there was very little conceptualisation of the world. Perhaps I am eager to re-live my own childhood through the perspectives of these students. However, aside from my self-serving intentions, my reading with the students and opening up a platform for discussion has led to the emergence of a buoyant and inquisitive atmosphere in the Koovathur classroom. I give you now an instance of a classroom discussion.

It was International Women’s Day and I had a brief conversation with my NGO supervisor about the very subtle manifestation of gender inequality that occurs in most Indian households. The ‘housewife’ or the woman in-charge of the household is the last to eat. She waits for her children and her husband to finish up before she begins eating. For reasons of prevailing patriarchy, it was still baffling to see no person in a household question the woman’s wait. This is one example of very subdued behaviour and I decided to broach this observation in our classroom for the children are accustomed to the chronology of the eating order. Hence I faced the challenge of steering them away from familiar waters to the realm of fathoming.

Was it an easy quest? Could I recreate the casual and highly engaging atmosphere that Ms. Umarani created in her Social Science class? To both, I foresaw a long trek. The children answered in various ways, “My mother eats last because she is familiar with the serving procedure.”; “We (the children) need to eat earlier because we have homework to do.”. They approached the questions very pragmatically. The Tamil language teacher was participating in our discussion too and seeing that her students were largely at ease with the idea of their mother eating last, she urged the students to be more dutiful and considerate towards their mother, by helping out with the kitchen duties and other household affairs. In an instant, the discussion turned into a moralistic one, something I did not intend for. On the other hand, I was not surprised that the teacher took it upon herself to impart ‘morals’ to her students as it was easier to tell the children what was a right or wrong behaviour than to give them the opportunity to reflect on why certain acts are considered ethical.

What was my intention of introducing the topic of gender? Furthermore, why was I eager to hear their views to the question of what set both sexes apart from each other? Yes – there is rampant gender inequality and I was trying to engage the students in this issue that otherwise is forgotten in everyday life. But my issues with patriarchy had turned our discussion into how a child ought to be towards their parents. I cringe at the ‘oughts’ since my intention is to merely propel inquisitiveness. However, there are certain issues that are intrinsically concerned with the ethical and I would not want the discussion to turn into a session of preaching. For these reasons, I am still struggling with the moderation of discussions, especially in having to avoid a moralistically-charged atmosphere.

The point of these discussions is to expand the boundaries of literacy as rural-based schools focus on achieving the basics of literacy which involves identification of the alphabets and comprehension of the basic meaning of words. The process of achieving decent literacy rates is already a struggle but perhaps the pedagogical approach to reading has to suit the needs of the child better. Reading can prove to be more eventful if the child’s experiences are used as a basis for understanding the contents of reading. This relational aspect to reading is only achievable if the child is given the opportunity to place the contents of reading within the experiential frame of knowledge. In addition, the teacher has to adopt a more subdued approach by becoming a facilitator, which in its entity would tame her desires to directly intervene and dictate what ought to be learned. All in all, the delicate nature of discussions involves careful tracing of the boundaries which requires a careful sketch of the role of the facilitator ––the rest is up to the child to bolden the contours of the discussion in a way she finds appropriate so as to reap insights and knowledge-bits that are to her liking.

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